This winter, we've had heightened awareness of the real and potential costs to society from infectious diseases. Influenza, a highly contagious viral illness that attacks the nose, throat, and lungs, typically starts abruptly with fever, headache, muscle aches, and fatigue. Very early in the course, a sore throat and the hallmark symptom of a dry, hacking, non-productive cough begin. Symptoms usually last five to seven days, but the cough can persist for two to three weeks. People are infectious for one day before and seven days after the onset of symptoms. This isn't the "stomach" flu, a misnomer since a short-lived bout of nausea and vomiting with or without fever and muscle aches is almost never caused by influenza. Viral gastroenteritis is a better name for this condition.
It may take five to six weeks for even a normal, healthy adult to get his or her strength back. Your body breaks down muscle to fight the infection, and it takes that long to replace the muscle. It's the same as if you had an operation metabolically. Worker productivity may be affected both at a physical level and an intellectual one for that long of a period.
Some people will develop life-threatening complications such as pneumonia as a result of the flu. Millions of people in the United States-about 10 to 20 percent of U.S. residents-will get influenza each year. An average of about 36,000 people per year in the United States die from influenza, and 114,000 per year have to be admitted to the hospital as a result of influenza. Lost worker productivity has been estimated at $56 billion each year. Those at greatest risk are very young children, the elderly, and those with a chronic illness. Antibiotics don't help because they work only on bacteria-not viruses. They contribute to the development of infections by bacteria resistant to the drugs.
Influenza can be prevented. Flu shots work; even when they don't contain the same strain, some protection is afforded. They're safe, and they save lives and productivity. But that's not all that can be done. In your immediate work group or office, organize a team commitment to holding down the burden of influenza, starting in the fall, with a program encouraging coworkers to get their flu shots. Various health organizations offer programs each year.
At the height of flu season-usually in December, January, and February-download informational materials from the CDC Web site, and post them in break rooms and on bulletin boards. Have a team member pass one out to each employee, and personally encourage them to follow the simple things that really do make a difference: Avoid close contact with someone who's sick; stay home when you're sick (a cold is one thing, flu quite another, and employers should insist people with flu go home to avoid infecting the entire workforce); cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough, and throw it in the wastebasket; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; and perhaps most importantly, wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand wash very frequently. Keep them in your desk, car, and purse.
The team should develop a good-natured, supportive approach that encourages these behaviors. Have fun with it, but be firm in encouraging ill or recovering people to follow the guidelines. Just like my ongoing home personal competency development program moderated by my spouse of more than 35 years, behavior change takes reminders, encouragement, support, and rewards. The work team's reward will be fewer missed days, less suffering, improved productivity, and potentially improved esprit-de-corps. IBI